US war on terrorism quietly enters Phase 2
In deference to the US, Somalia and Yemen are cracking down on militants.
Nairobi, Kenya - As the world watches Afghanistan, the US is quietly embarking on the next phase of its war on terrorism. This low-grade campaign, however, does not involve aerial assaults on the handful of countries identified by the US as harboring terrorist networks.
Instead, the US is making sure that countries such as Somalia and Yemen - where Osama bin Laden allegedly operated in recent years - police themselves.
"These governments are afraid they might be the next US target, and are therefore clearly keen to show they are cooperating in the war against terrorism," says one foreign diplomat in Nairobi.
In recent weeks, the governments of both Somalia and Yemen have tracked down and arrested several people with suspected links to Mr. bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. Dozens have been killed in these operations or in the chaos surrounding them.
One country being closely watched is Somalia. In recent weeks, top US officials have repeatedly said they suspect links between the transitional government in Somalia and extremist personalities - and have hinted that action might be taken soon against these forces.
Interim Somali President Abdiquassim Salad Hassan has vigorously denied any such links and vowed to help the US weed out any terrorists there. Last week, his government arrested eight Iraqis and a Palestinian on suspicion of having links with Al Qaeda.
The arrests came one day after a diplomat from the US Embassy in Nairobi went to Mogadishu, the first visit by a US official to the Somali capital since 1995. Although the diplomat, Glenn Warren, refused to speak to the press about his visit, local papers said he had met with members of the ruling Transitional National Government (TNG) there.
An adviser to the US government, who requested anonymity, says the arrests are a sign that US pressure on the TNG is bearing some fruit. But the arrests were largely symbolic, he says, adding that he is skeptical that the Somali government would risk a destabilizing backlash by arresting any real extremists.
"The TNG will try to show its goodwill by arresting or deporting a handful of non-Somalis and claiming they're Islamists," he says. "I doubt the TNG will nab a real Al Qaeda figure; more likely they'll arrest a few poor Iraqi migrants looking for cooking jobs in Mogadishu."
Ted Dagne, a specialist in African affairs at the US Congressional Research Service, says the US objective in Somalia, which lacks an effective government, is simply to make it less hospitable to terrorists.
"The US is using preventative measures in Somalia, rather than punitive ones," Mr. Dagne says, suggesting that the US will need to go much further if it wants to address the root causes of the problem of extremism in Somalia.
"The absence of a central authority is a major contributing factor in making Somalia a conducive environment for terrorist and extremist groups," Dagne argues. "A stable Somalia under a democratic central authority is perhaps the only guarantee for a terrorist-free Somalia. But establishing a representative government is a major undertaking."
Since the arrests in Somalia, violent clashes have taken place among different clan groups there, with 35 reported killed within the following week.
While it is difficult to link the fighting directly to the government arrests, the outbreaks are symptomatic of rising tensions in the country - and reminders of how quickly violence can flare up there.
Meanwhile, the US has reportedly asked the Yemeni government to allow US forces to participate in the hunt for Al Qaeda members.
While the State Department denies those reports, the Yemeni government says its own troops have been searching since Dec. 18 for people identified by Washington as Al Qaeda members, and that at least 24 solders and six tribesmen have been killed in the ensuing battles.
Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul-Qader Bagammal said last week that his country is determined to oust any and all Al Qaeda militants from its territory, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh ordered his forces to use an "iron fist" to deal with any security threat.
"Yemen and the United States are cooperating in intelligence in the current antiterror campaign," says a government spokesman.
The Yemeni security forces, he adds, are "capable of doing their duty and tracking down wanted terrorists and any elements who threaten the country's security on their own."
Somalia and Yemen are not the only countries where quiet operations - encouraged by the US - are taking place. US military officials believe Al Qaeda cells operate in 50 to 60 countries worldwide.
Bin Laden's network is said to have ties to Chechnya, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has long portrayed the fighting as Russia's battle against terrorists. While critical of Russia's handling of this conflict in the past, the US has changed gears since Sept. 11 and is said to be supportive of Putin's policy there.
In Egypt, 22 people, including professors, lawyers, and doctors, were arrested last month and charged with belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. They face military trials this week and could be jailed for up to 15 years.
Speaking recently at an event with the Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, a keen rabbit-shooter, President Bush vowed that bin Laden and his followers would be caught wherever they were. "Sometimes those rabbits think they can hide from the governor," he said. "But eventually he smokes them out and gets them."